Gender Politics in "Macbeth"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

24 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Gender ideology
1. in the English Renaissance
2. in Renaissance tragedy

III. Gender stereotyping in Macbeth
1. Masculinity
2. Femininity
3. Blurring of categories

IV. Gender conflict in Macbeth
1. Lady Macbeth, the “fiendlike queen”
2. Macbeth, the “butcher”
3. Macbeth - an inversion of gender roles?

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Renaissance tragedy does to a large extent deal with common political, religious and social questions of the time. In most cases, authors use tragedy as the place to question and even criticize those issues, and thus use it as a political space. In Jacobean England, society was profoundly hierarchical with the king on top of the state, and the father or husband as head of the family. “[W]omen were clearly socially subordinate, and the preponderance of discourse on the gender hierarchy was misogynistic”[1]. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s late tragedies, written in 1606, and presented at the Globe Theatre later that year. In Shakespeare’s plays sex and gender are crucial for defining human identity and political power.

In the course of this essay, I will first take a closer look at gender ideology in the English Renaissance and in Renaissance tragedy and see how society justified the social subordination of women, and what kind of behaviour was considered appropriate for women. As Macbeth is a play that hugely builds on gender stereotyping, I will afterwards work out the play’s definition of masculinity and femininity in the medieval social context the tragedy is set in, and subsequently analyse the characters of the three witches and king Duncan regarding their hermaphroditism and androgynity, and see whether the blurring of fixed gender roles might be interpreted as an indication that gender politics in Macbeth are unusual for the medieval Scottish context. The main part of this essay will be dedicated to the Macbeths, two strongly individualized characters. I will examine the characters of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth first, take a look at how their ambition leads to their downfall and afterwards discuss whether it is possible to talk about an inversion of the traditional gender roles since especially Lady Macbeth oversteps the boundaries of appropriate female behaviour and is, at least in the beginning, the more powerful character of the two spouses.

II. Gender ideology

1. Gender ideology in the English Renaissance

In Renaissance society, women did not exist as individuals, but as part of their fathers’ or husbands’ possessions. Marriage in those days was a mere transfer of power from one male to another. Besides, it was seen as the foundation of the family and, at the same time, the basis of the whole state.[2] The social subordination of women has its roots in the Creation story of the Bible, which serves as proof of women’s innate inferiority. As the “broken rib of mankind”[3] a woman is “a purely derivative creation, she is less than man, merely a portion of his anatomy, and yet at once more than man since she is an overspill of Adam, created from a bone which was in excess of his needs”.[4] In general, the Church attached great importance to the patriarchal hierarchy since this form of society was already described in the Decalogue and other biblical texts, which proclaim the father, who is given his authority by God himself, as the head of the family.[5] A good wife or daughter had to be submissive and obedient, she had to do what the head of the family demanded without ever complaining. Rebellion of any kind was regarded as treason and especially rebellion over the issue of marriage constituted a serious threat to the order of the state. In Jacobean England, society was profoundly hierarchical. The family was seen as a domestic microcosm reflecting the order of the society or the macrocosm. Rebellion or disorder within the family was seen as treason since it might have had repercussions on society as a whole. In The Trew Law of Free Monarchies published in 1598, King James I uses the analogy of the king as father and argues that the former considers his subjects his children: “... a naturall Father to all his Lieges ... And as the Father by his fatherly duty is bound to care for the nourishing, education, and vertuous government ofhis children; even so is the king bound to care for all his subjects”[6].

Almost one hundred years earlier Christine de Pizan, a 15th century writer, counsels women to live in complete submission:

she will humble herself toward him, in deed and word and by curtseying; she will obey without complaint; and she will hold her peace [...] suppose he is unloving towards his wife or strays into a love affair [...] she must put up with all this and dissimulate wisely, pretending that she does not notice it and that she truly does not know anything about it.[7]

While Pizan’s statement from The Treasure of the City of Ladies (1405) stresses the importance of female submission, obedience and discretion, Baldassare Castiglione, in The Book of the Courtier (1528), remarks about male and female conduct:

We ourselves have set a rule that a dissolute life in us is not a vice, or fault, or disgrace, while in women it means such utter opprobrium and shame that any woman of whom ill is once spoken is disgraced forever, whether what is said be calumny or not.[8]

The attitudes towards women and appropriate female behaviour described above are also mirrored in 15th and 16th century tragedy.

2. Gender ideology in Renaissance tragedy

In Shakespeare’s plays sex and gender are crucial determinants of human identity and political power. The hierarchical nature of the Early modem household and women’s natural inferiority are reflected differently in the plays: The Taming of the Shrew, for example, is an extreme example of the acceptance of the codes of female behaviour as mentioned above.

After his marriage to Katherine Petruccio calls her “my goods, my chattels. She is my house, / My household-stuff, my field, my bam, / My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything” (III.ii.229- 231)[9]. At the end of the play Katherine seems to have lost her initial rebelliousness and complies with the norms society imposes on women. She tells other women:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee, And for thy maintenance; commits his body To painful labour both by sea and land, To watch the night in storms, the day in cold, Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe; And craves no other tribute at thy hands But love, fair looks, and true obedience; Too little payment for so great a debt. (V.ii.147-155)[10]

The subordination of women to the prescriptive power of patriarchal doctrine required them to strive for four virtues, for obedience, chastity, silence and piety. Especially chastity was very important for the social status. This is reflected in Hamlet, in Laertes’s warning to his sister Ophelia about Hamlet’s amorous intentions:

Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain If with too credent ear you list his songs Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open To his unmastered importunity.

Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister, And keep you in the rear of your affection Out of the shot and danger of desire. (I.iii.28-34)[11]

As dramatic action depends on conflicts, Shakespeare’s plays show disruptions of the social order, of the household or the state as a whole. “Dramatic conflict is located within familial, social, and political transitions, particularly in moments of marriage, death and genealogical succession.”[12] Such a conflict becomes obvious in Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth is responsible for the male hero’s downfall. “The masculinity of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is paradoxically vulnerable, dependent on women’s confirmation and approval. If their masculine self-image is challenged, male characters descend into rage, tyranny, even madness.”[13]

In the following, I am going to take a closer look at the way Macbeth challenges the typical conceptions of femininity and masculinity.

III. Gender stereotyping in Macbeth

1. Masculinity

As Macbeth is a play that hugely builds on gender stereotypes, I would first of all like to take a closer look at how the play and the characters themselves define the norms and conducts of appropriate male and female conduct. Afterwards, I will go over to an examination of the Weird Sisters and King Duncan as those characters, from the very beginning of the play, hint at a blurring of the traditional categories of male and female.

The heroic world of Macbeth is established in the opening scenes describing the Scottish victory in the battle against the Norwegian army. They are crucial for the play’s definition of manhood in terms of valour, prowess in battle and violence. The first impression ofMacbeth is based on the Captain’s report ofMacdonald’s murder:

[...] but all’s too weak, for brave Macbeth - well he deserves that name - Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel Which smoked with bloody execution, Like Valour’s minion carved out his passage Till he faced the slave - Which ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell to him, Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops, And fixed his head upon our battlements. (I.ii.15-23)[14]

The very anonymity of the Captain, who relates Macbeth’s deed to the king makes the latter’s glorification in “Homeric terms”[15] as an eagle, a lion, “Valour’s minion” and even Bellona, the Roman goddess of war’s bridegroom, seem objective. In the heroic world of medieval Scotland, violence is fully accepted and Macdonald’s severed head is a symbol thereof. On hearing of the murder of the treacherous nobleman King Duncan praises Macbeth as “valiant cousin, worthy gentleman” (I.ii.24) since the execution of the Thane of Cawdor is fully legitimate and necessary to secure Duncan’s throne. Loyalty to king and country, courage in war and the readiness to sacrifice one’s life for a noble cause are the virtues a man’s valour is judged by. To die a hero’s death is confirmation of manhood. This becomes especially clear towards the end of the play when young Siward, the Earl ofNorthumberland’s son, is killed in combat. Rosse consoles Old Siward with the thought that his son died a hero’s death:

Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier’s debt; He only lived but till he was a man, The which no sooner had his prowess confirmed In the unshrinking station where he fought, But like a man he died. (V.vii. 69-73)

The touchstones by which manhood is defined are not solely violence, prowess in battle and loyalty to the king; manhood is comprised of more. This view is taken by the Scottish nobles, whose definition of manhood is not as narrow as that of Macbeth and his wife. For the nobles power cannot be regarded as immune from cruelty and crime, and especially after Macbeth’s regicide they have to use violence in order to re-establish order in Scotland but they build on

[t]he king-becoming graces,

Asjustice, verity, temp’rance, stableness,

Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,

Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude[.] (IV.iii. 91-94)

Allowing oneself to be sensitive and to feel grief is, according to Malcolm and Macduff, also an essential part of manhood. The total absence of feelings as in Macbeth’s definition of manliness is the prerequisite for failure since power in the hands of a man who does not show human feelings inevitably leads to a character’s downfall and to political chaos in the kingdom. Although Macduff abandons his family in order to go to England and convince Malcolm to return to Scotland as their legitimate king, he is Shakespeare’s exemplar of heroic manhood. “Dramatically and psychologically, he takes on full masculine power only as he loses his family and becomes energized by the loss, converting his grief into the more ‘manly’ tune of vengeance [...]; the loss of his family here enables his accession to full masculine action even while his response to that loss insists on a more humane definition of manhood.”[16] Bearing the loss of his wife and children means allowing for feelings. Macduff’s grief clearly is the turning point to full humanity. Only by feeling it as a man is Macduff able to come to terms with the horrible murder of his family and can start to “[d]ispute it like a man” (IV.iii. 219) by seeking vengeance. Thus, taking revenge for injustice is fully compatible with the nobles’ code of manliness. “The manly stereotype in this play exceeds the limits of soldierly valor and embraces the extreme of retaliatory violence. This attitude permeates society from noble to bondsman.” [17] On the one hand, Macduff’s cry ‘He has no children!’ voices his frustration at not being able to take complete revenge and wipe out the murderer’s family. Macbeth, on the other hand, makes a clear distinction between the catalogue of men and the “valued file” (III.i.95) and demands constant proving of one’s manhood by manly deeds.

As mentioned above, Macbeth’s understanding of manhood is different. In the beginning of the play, it is basically the same as the Scottish nobles’ definition of manliness but due to his own ambition and his wife’s influence, it evolves as the play progresses. I will come back to the character of Macbeth and its dynamism later.

2. Femininity

The stereotypical role of women in the play defines them as passive, weak, dependent, and incapable of dealing with violence, except to become its victims. In the whole play, natural femininity is only represented by Lady Macduff although her role in the tragedy is only minor. Even though Macduff and his wife seem to be the “normative couple” [18], they never appear on stage together and there is no communication between the two of them, at least not in the sense in which the Macbeths talk to and understand each other. As a medieval noblewoman, Lady Macduff “would have been expected to lead the defence of the castle in her husband’s absence, but this lady is represented as a domesticated modem ‘wife’, helpless without her husband’s protection, easy prey to the assassins who violate her domestic space”[19]. Although confined to passivity, Lady Macduff publicly expresses her feelings after having been told about her husband’s departure for England and thus leaving her and the children unprotected. She expresses her total helplessness by lamenting

He loves us not,

[.. .]Forthe poor wren,

The most diminuitive of birds, will fight,

Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

All is the fear and nothing is the love;

As little is the wisdom, where the flight So runs against all reason. (IV.ii.8-14)

Irene G. Dash argues that, by including Lady Macduff and contrasting her to Lady Macbeth, the play examines the sources for a woman’s moral decisions. Lady Macbeth fully supports her husband in seizing the Scottish throne although he has no title to it; Lady Macduff, however, condemns her husband for fleeing to England and leaving his family in mortal danger.[20]

Not only is the characterization of women in terms of conventional prejudices and stereotypes supported by the portrayal of Lady Macduff, but also by male attitudes towards women, which are now and then uttered in the course of the play. In Duncan addresses Lady Macbeth as “[f]air and noble hostess” (, thus indirectly telling her what he considers to be her role and what he expects from her, i.e. to be looked after well. Later, after the murder of Duncan is detected and Lady Macbeth wants to know what had happened before, Macduff warns her by describing the typical feminine reaction to such dreadful news: O gentle lady, ‘Tis not for you to hear what I can speak: The repetition in a woman’s ear Would murder as it fell. (II.iii.85-88)

Lady Macbeth acts accordingly, she reacts exactly the way she is expected to. On hearing Macbeth’s moving description of his discovery of the dead king she almost faints and needs help to leave the room.

However, appearances are deceptive since Lady Macbeth is not the dutiful submissive woman she pretends to be in public. In a world in which femininity is reduced to passivity and weakness, obedience and the embodiment of humane virtues, a strong woman like Lady Macbeth who would like to assert herself in a world dominated by men, and who would like to see herself as her husband’s equal has to leave the domain she is traditionally confined to and overstep the mark to manly behaviour.

3. Blurring of categories

The view that Macbeth is a play structured by antitheses and clear-cut black and white structures, representing good and evil or male and female respectively, is deconstructed in post-modern criticism. Taking a closer look at the figures of the Weird Sisters and King Duncan, this approach is justified since Shakespeare does identify them as female and male in the dramatis personae but, nevertheless, there are direct and indirect hints in the play which make the clear cut boundaries of at least the witches’ biological sex disappear.

Apart from the fact that they are servants of Hecate, the witches’ true identity is left unclear throughout the play. As they are frequently referred to as ‘sisters’ and ‘witches’ they seem to be female. Banquo is the only one to question their biological sex when saying “You should be women. / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (I.iii.45-47). It is not at all clear whether the witches are female or male; the only thing that can be said with certainty about them is that they hold power over mortal men and that their “gender instability, uncanny powers, and malevolence towards men embody typical early modern anxieties about female agency”[21]. Their language of contradiction mirrored by “[f]air is foul, and foul is fair” (I.i.ll) may also be taken as a hint at the mingling of categories, moral standards and at the fact that nothing is quite what it seems.

Although King Duncan’s biological sex remains undisputed, he nevertheless combines in himself the attributes of both father and mother. Duncan is the “androgynous parent”[22] who, on the one hand is the centre of authority as he confers titles to the nobles and is the source of honour and lineage. On the other hand, he is the source of nurturance who plants his children on the throne and makes them grow. King Duncan is the source of all good and he is opposed to the witches’ poisonous cauldron and Lady Macbeth’s gall-filled breasts. Duncan makes the existence of a mother unnecessary and in the end he is killed for his typically female softness, his naive trust and his inability to read peoples’ minds in their faces. After the regicide, male and female become realms apart: the female characters are either merely helpless as in the case of Lady Macduff or merely poisonous as Lady Macbeth; the males


[1] Dympna Callaghan. Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of King Lear, Othello, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989) 12.

[2] Cf. Callaghan, Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy, 14.

[3] Middleton, Thomas, William Rowley, The Changeling. (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000) 99.

[4] Callaghan, Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy, 102.

[5] Cf. ibid. 17.

[6] Ibid. 18.

[7] Bear, R. S. “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus”. Renascence Editions: An Online Repository of Works Printed in English Between the Years 1477 and 1799. Homepage: Called up on 24 February 2008.

[8] Bear, R. S. “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus”. Renascence Editions: An Online Repository of Works Printed in English Between the Years 1477 and 1799. Homepage: Called up on 24 February 2008.

[9] Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. In: Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson and David Scott Kastan. The Arden Shakespeare: Complete Works (London: Thomson Learning, 2001), 1058.

[10] Ibid., 1069.

[11] Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor). London: Thomson, 2006. All references in brackets refer to this edition.

[12] Traub, Valerie. “Gender and sexuality in Shakespeare“. Eds. Margareta de Grazia and Stanley Wells. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. (Cambridge: CUP, 2001) 132.

[13] Ibid., 134, f.

[14] Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. (Ed. Nicholas Brooke) Oxford: OUP, 1990. All references in brackets refer to this edition.

[15] Sadowski, Piotr. Dynamism ofCharacter in Shakespeare’s Mature Tragedies. (London: Associated University Presses, 2003) 274.

[16] Adelman, Janet. ‘“Bom of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth”. Eds. Nelson Gamer, Shirley and Sprengnether, Madelon. Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996) 120.

[17] Asp, Carolyn. “‘Be bloody, bold and resolute’: Tragic Action and Sexual Stereotyping in Macbeth”. Ed. Schoenbaum, Samuel. Macbeth: Critical Essays. (London and New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991) 379.

[18] Ibid., 382.

[19] Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare and Women. (Oxford and New York: OUP, 2005) 135.

[20] Cf. Dash, Irene G. Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays. (London: Associated University Presses, 1997)161, f.

[21] Leon Alfar, Christina. Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender an Power in Shakespearean Tragedy. (London: Associated University Presses, 2003) 117.

[22] Adelman, ‘“Bom of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth“, 108.

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Gender Politics in "Macbeth"
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Shakespeare’s Tragedies – Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear
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Gender, Politics, Macbeth
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Katharina Herrmann (Author), 2008, Gender Politics in "Macbeth", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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